The Joys of Being Wrong
By: Ethan Schutz
I’m wrong a lot. Quite often, in fact. And, about an amazing variety of subjects. You see, I have a running dialogue in my head telling me about all the things that are about to go wrong: I won’t get there on time, my plane will be delayed, the client will be disappointed, I won’t get the contract, my staff will quit, people will think my ideas are dumb, someone will point out the fatal flaw in my argument, I’ll forget something important…and I could go on without any trouble. The wonderful thing is that I am wrong about most of these things most of the time. Now, you may say that this is simply a rationale, and in fact I should be more vigilant, careful, planned, disciplined, optimistic, and so on. But, from my point of view, it is a huge relief to realize that my being wrong just means that things are going much better than they might.
It’s a bit like flying an airplane. According to some, a plane is off course 90% of the time during flight. 90%! Just imagine if that were related to the likelihood of reaching the destination. Only one in ten flights would get to where they intended! The announcement might go something like this: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to flight #86. Final destination of this flight will be announced approximately 20 minutes before our arrival. We will be heading roughly west in an attempt to reach San Francisco this evening. If this is not the general direction that you were planning on going, now is the time to exit the aircraft…” What gets us to our destinations is the fact that there is such a thing as course correction. And, course correction relies entirely on feedback. In the case of an airplane, the feedback is the navigation system that informs the pilot of the actual direction the plane is going. In my case, my feedback system consists of my perception. When I understand that the actual events taking place are not the same as in my mind, it tells me how I am off course. This is a wonderful thing!
In fact, being wrong is one of the most effective and efficient ways to learn about being right. When I am right, there is not always clear feedback confirming what has happened. For example, there are times when I am explaining something to a group of people. When I finish I ask if there are any questions or comments. Every now and then the response I get is…silence. Complete and utter silence. People look at me. I wait. They look some more. I try to discern the meaning of their blank faces. Finally, I say, “Either you have completely understood what I was trying to say—which seems a little unlikely. Or, I have utterly lost you and you are so confused you don’t even know what to say. Could someone tell me which it is?” On the occasions when they confirm that they have understood, it is a relief and I get to have the illusion that I am an eminently clear and eloquent speaker, at least for a while. I also proceed ahead without necessarily knowing where to go next, since at that point I am having more of a one-way conversation rather than a dialogue. On the other occasions, I get more specific information about what parts were helpful and what ones remain fuzzy. This, of course, is very useful feedback and can lead to wonderful course correcting.
Finding joy in being wrong also means I don’t have to fear it so much. At times I walk around worrying that my errors will be revealed and I will be humiliated and shown to be the phony that I really am. This is not only a terrible state to live in, but also a very sure damper on getting things done, trying anything new, and thinking more freely. Much more helpful is the notion that being wrong is simply part of life and something I can choose to leverage in a way that is helpful to me. After all, I can always be pretty sure that I will be wrong again at some point (probably pretty soon), and that means that being wrong is something I do very consistently. It’s hard for me to think of many other things that I do that consistently (other than eat)! That also means that I have a large supply of material to draw upon in my quest for doing things better.
And, besides, the more I know about being wrong, the more I know what’s right. Nothing wrong with that.
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